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Power pain

Pay more for less service — this was pretty much the message from Eskom this week.

Now, I know, before you start jumping up and down, that price escalation is critical to ensure capital availability to construct generation capacity and infrastructure, which may deliver power in 10 years’ time at approximately the same levels of availability as we currently experience.

Yup, you’ve got it, despite all the fabulous efforts to ensure the lights will be burning post-2010, a very real possibility exists that load-shedding will become a comfortable familiarity of everyday life in Southern Africa in the long run.

It’s simple: we don’t have enough power for this region now. Given current plans for expansion and rate of progress (and delay), we won’t have enough power in 10 years’ time. Despite great plans for independent power generation, co-generation, demand-side management, power conservation programmes, power interruptions and awareness campaigns, the truth is we will never again experience the low power tariffs that catapulted South Africa to close to the top of the list of heavenly industrial investment destinations.

We will also not have a mentionable national reserve-generation capacity, which means more power cuts. Compounding the issues, all the focus on independent power generation is opening a whole new can of worms … did anyone mention fuel?

Even if we build monstrously large distributed power stations, owned by everyone but Eskom, we may not have the fuel to generate power with these shiny new toys. And I’m not talking coal … gas and diesel and other lesser-known fuel resources are already under pressure — remember the scramble for gas last winter? It’s getting worse, not better; if you suddenly realise you may not have power this winter, it is very logical to add a gas heater to the family’s asset inventory. The problem is similar to that of trying to grow crops without rain — you will not feel the love.

This whole power issue has just become a pain. The downward spiral has begun. The only thing that keeps me optimistic here is the fact that renewable energies are fast becoming so much more attractive. I am eagerly anticipating the meltdown to see in which direction the ants will scramble, because the performances over the past few months have been erratic, unstructured attempts to control the crisis.

I think there’s a need for some focused long-term planning and vision from the powers that be.